Bottom Line: Beautiful family drama
“A priceless violin.A family torn apart.A decision that could change everything.Berlin, 1939. Fourteen-year-old Simon Horowitz is awash in a world of music. His family owns a superb collection of instruments and at its heart is his father’s 1742 Guarneri del Gesú violin. But all is lost when the Nazis march across Europe, the Horowitz family’s possessions are confiscated, and Simon and his father and brother are sent to Dachau. Amid unimaginable cruelty and death, Simon finds kindness from an unexpected corner, and a chance to pick up a violin in exchange for a chance to live.In the present day, orchestra conductor Rafael Gomez has seen much in his time on the world’s stage, but he finds himself oddly inspired by the playing of an aspiring violin virtuoso, a fantastic talent who is just fourteen. When the boy, Daniel Horowitz, Simon’s grandson, suddenly rebels and refuses to play another note, Rafael decides he’ll do anything he can to change that. After Rafael learns the boy’s family once owned a precious violin, believed to have been lost forever, he thinks he might know how to get Daniel playing again. In taking on the task he discovers a family story like no other, one that winds from World War II and Communist Russia all the way to Rafael’s very own stage.”
Thoughts: During the Nazi reign, millions of priceless artifacts were heedlessly taken from their original owners and used to decorate the large houses and offices of Party officials. Simon Horowitz’s father recognizes the danger and takes steps to protect his family’s heirlooms, include a priceless and very rare violin. When his measures fail and the Nazis come to confiscate the family goods, Simon finds himself at the wrong end of an officer’s wrath and on his way to the Dachau concentration camp. While there, he endures the most horrible situations and ultimate battle for survival, until a different officer discovers his skill with the violin.
Flash forward seventy years, and Simon’s grandson, Daniel, is a musical prodigy facing his own challenges. Torn between his love of music and his need to be a normal boy, he must decide whether it is time to give up his beloved violin or not. A timely intercession by a famous conductor peels back the layers on the decades-old family mystery surrounding its lost treasures in an attempt to get Daniel to make the right choice. Julie Thomas’ The Keeper of Secrets is more than a family mystery or a historical tragedy. It is a novel about the love of family and the power of music, and the lengths to which people will go to protect both.
While some could argue that the dual narrative is quickly becoming an overused plot device, its use in The Keeper of Secrets works very well to distinguish the two boys’ experiences and connect them through their love of music. The switch between time periods is smooth, allowing a reader to be able to move from one to the other without pause. At the same time, the healing power of music crosses time and space and unites these two very different boys and their even more different audiences.
As Simon’s experiences are so vastly different from Daniel’s, it would be very easy to scoff at one and concentrate on the other. However, it is quite obvious that Ms. Thomas’ never means to use Simon’s time in Dachau to belittle or diminish the difficult choice Daniel must make. Rather, it is to highlight the life-changing qualities of music and how its beauty and power can affect even the most depraved of souls, as well as emphasize how similar the two boys really are. To have that ability to impact others so profoundly is not a skill to be ignored or taken for granted, as Simon learns via real-world experience and Daniel figures out on his own. The ties that bind are thick indeed, made more so via their love of the violin and their skill at playing it.
Speaking of Simon’s experiences, his story is disturbing and profound in its glimpses of goodness and evil. Ms. Thomas lets the scenes unfold without embellishment, creating age-appropriate observations and a somber atmosphere that continually taints Simon and his fight for survival. Even as he observes Daniel playing, there is an underlying soberness to his character that is a stark reminder of all that he has seen and done. The scenes in the concentration camp make one’s heart ache. At the same time, there is a matter-of-factness to them that minimizes the gruesomeness without impacting the overall harshness of such a life. Simon’s ability to survive in such surroundings, specifically because of his musical talent, lends a macabre note to the violin and music in general.
Daniel brings back the music’s purity and beauty with his innocence and youth. Everything about him speaks to his goodness and purity, especially his passion for baseball and hanging out with his friends. The total opposite of everything Simon endured at the same age, Daniel’s story highlights how important the sacrifices made during WWII were for future generations. Because music ties them together more closely than their familial bonds, their similarities overshadow any differences.
Music has long been known to have almost magical abilities. It brings people together in ways that are just not possible via anything else. The Keeper of Secrets highlights music’s powers under the guise of a rare and gorgeous family heirloom, lost during one of the most tragic periods in modern history and found by chance two generations later. Beautifully told through the use of dual narratives, Simon’s and Daniel’s stories perfectly balance each other and prove that music really is the common denominator of life. The story is at once haunting and touching and well worth the time spent devouring this beautiful novel.